MURPHY — For a moment on Friday, the Plano West football team nearly found itself on the wrong end of some deja vu.
Just over one year removed from erasing an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter for an emotional 36-35 victory over Plano East, the Wolves nearly fell victim to some late heroics by the Panthers in Friday’s rivalry renewal at Kimbrough Stadium.
What was a 24-point West lead in the fourth quarter was trimmed to eight inside the final two minutes. After recovering an onside kick try earlier in the quarter, East (0-6, 0-3 in 6-6A) was unable to make it 2-for-2 and West (4-2, 2-1) managed to run out the remainder of the clock for a 34-26 victory.
“The mojo nearly came back on us. We just put ourselves in some tough spots and executed poorly at the end,” said Tyler Soukup, West head coach. “That’ll get your butt beat some nights.”
It gave the Wolves some anxious moments on Friday, despite amassing their largest lead of the ballgame with 11:47 left in the fourth quarter following a 6-yard touchdown pass from sophomore Vance Feuerbacher to senior Jackson Stambaugh for a 34-10 lead.
East responded with an 18-yard screen pass from sophomore Harris Boyd to junior Ismail Mahdi to close the gap to 34-17 and later benefited from an intentional safety taken by the Wolves, who had to punt from their own end zone with 3:42 left in the ballgame.
The Panthers took the ensuing kickoff into West territory and orchestrated a six-play drive capped by a 5-yard touchdown run by Boyd for a 34-26 deficit with 1:42 remaining. The Wolves recovered the ensuing onside kick and stopped the bleeding from there.
“I really believe that getting in these tight moments is beneficial to us,” Soukup said. “I don’t like how it feels. This is just more of our kids learning how to win and execute in the moment. We’ve been in a lot of football games where we’ve had to execute late and I think that’ll pay dividends.”
The Wolves were in control for the prior three quarters despite a key change in offensive personnel. A leg injury to senior quarterback Greg Draughn led to a start for Feuerbacher, who totaled three touchdowns and added a team-high 88 rushing yards during Friday’s win.
Feuerbacher’s mobility added a different wrinkle to the Wolves’ rushing attack, with carries divvied up between the quarterback, sophomore Dermot White and senior Tabren Yates during the first half. All three players scored at least one rushing touchdown in the win, with Yates scampering for a 4-yard score with 8:36 left in the second quarter to five West a 7-3 lead and Feuerbacher later adding rushing scores of 13 and 9 yards for a 20-3 advantage at halftime.
“[Feuerbacher] is a terrific athlete and we’ve known that from the get-go,” Soukup said. “People who follow us know that he’s made some pretty explosive plays in the run game. That wasn’t much of a surprise. He’s a talented kid.”
Yates reaggravated a quad injury that kept him out of last week’s game against Coppell and was sidelined for the second half. Still, White and Feuerbacher kept the Wolves’ run game humming. White ran for 73 yards and found the end zone on an 8-yard run 55 seconds into the third quarter for a 27-3 lead and Feuerbacher later baited the East defense into playing the run before finding Stambaugh wide open for a score early in the fourth for West’s largest lead of the night.
“Our coaches would tell you that we expected that,” Soukup said of his two sophomore skill players. “Those are two special kids in addition to being good football players. They’re really mature.”
East, meanwhile, got a jolt from a sophomore of its own. Inserted into the game for the second half, Boyd commandeered three touchdown drives to keep the Panthers afloat despite the three-score deficit.
He finished with 180 yards on 11-of-15 passing and made occasional plays on the ground to breathe new life into an offense that mustered just a 37-yard field goal by junior Buzz Flabiano in the first half.
“He showed a lot of poise for a sophomore. He came out slinging and made some plays with his feet,” said Joey McCullough, East head coach. “We know he’s a good quarterback and he showed that in the second half the week before against Lewisville. He has a strong arm and a level head. I think he gave us a lift in the second half.”
Mahdi logged 117 rushing yards in addition to his 18-yard touchdown catch, while senior Kaden Gardner was a popular target for Boyd with eight catches for 93 yards. McCullough added that he’ll evaluate Boyd’s role in the offense going forward and “will do what’s best for the team.”
Despite the strong close, McCullough lamented on the Panthers’ continued struggles with penalties, of which they committed eight on Friday. The flags did East no favors opposite a bruising West run game, nor did a number of short fields afforded to the Wolves. In the second quarter, West snuffed out a fake punt by the Panthers that was stymied short of the first down and gave the West offense a 45-yard field to work with prior to Feuerbacher’s first touchdown run.
On the following defensive series, West senior Matthew Thompson picked off East. Although the drive ended on Feuerbacher’s second rushing score of the night, the Panthers did themselves no favors after committing a penalty on a West punt on fourth-and-11 that opened the door for a fourth-and-six conversion on a Feuerbacher scramble to keep the drive alive.
“We’ve still got four games left. There’s that opportunity,” McCullough said. “Is it going to be tough? Yes, because we haven’t finished. But I’m not a quitter. We’re going to keep fighting and keep digging.”
The Panthers seek their first win at 7 p.m. Friday when they host Flower Mound at Kimbrough Stadium. Meanwhile, West hosts state-ranked, first-place Marcus at Clark Stadium that same time.